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date: 02 July 2022

Gender Mainstreaming and Climate Changefree

Gender Mainstreaming and Climate Changefree

  • Margaret AlstonMargaret AlstonNewcastle University


Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by climate change, not because of innate characteristics but as a result of the social structures and cultural norms that shape gender inequalities. Feminist activists and transnational organizations continue to voice their concerns regarding the need for greater attention to gender inequalities in the context of climate change. Gender mainstreaming is a policy process designed to address the gendered consequences of any planned actions—the ultimate aim being to achieve gender equality. Gender mainstreaming emerged in the late 1990s at the Beijing Women’s Conference as a result of the frustrations of feminist activists and international nongovernmental organizations about the lack of attention to gender equality. Yet its implementation has been hampered both by a lack of vision as to its purpose and by ongoing tensions, particularly between those who espouse equality and those who support the mainstream. This has led to resistance to gender mainstreaming within departments and units that are charged with its implementation, and indeed a reluctance of key players to commit to gender equality. Yet there is still strong support for the original feminist intent from activists and researchers addressing the impacts of climate change. The transformational potential of gender mainstreaming is still viewed as a process that could address and challenge gender inequalities in the context of increasing climate challenges. However, there are barriers that must be overcome for the transformational potential of gender mainstreaming to be realized. These include equating climate justice with gender justice, ensuring that the radical feminist intent of gender mainstreaming is not co-opted by the neoliberal agenda of maximizing economic development over gender equality and women’s empowerment, and ensuring that organizations tasked with facilitating gender mainstreaming not only understand its intent but also address gender inequalities within their own organizational structures and practices.


  • Vulnerability
  • Climate Change
  • Gender Issues

Gender mainstreaming (GM) refers to the process of assessing the policies and practices of governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for gender bias, particularly as they relate to factors that might reduce gender equality. States and NGOs have a critical role in shaping inequitable gender arrangements through their policies, practices, and inequitable resource distribution. Historically this has resulted in significant constraints on the lives of women and girls through the tacit endorsement of the gender stereotyping of women and men and the ultimate subordination of women. For example, in Australia until 1966, women were forced by government policy to resign from any public service roles once married (Sawer, 2016). This resulted in hundreds of highly competent teachers, health workers, and other government employees leaving the workforce, thereby cementing highly gendered role stereotyping. As a result of the dominance of such policies across the globe, and the lobbying of women activists, in 1998, the United Nations (UN) endorsed GM, calling on member nations to “reorganise, improve, develop and evaluate policy processes in order to incorporate a gender equality perspective” (Council of Europe, 2020).

The idea for GM was introduced into the international environment by feminist activists who attended the 1995 Beijing Women’s Congress. At this conference women from across the world expressed their deep dissatisfaction with the lack of adequate processes for achieving gender equality and argued that policies, practices, resourcing, and leadership opportunities favored male advancement and created significant disadvantages for women and girls. The international focus of the Beijing conference led to strong support from UN instrumentalities, and this collaboration between the UN and activists led to the UN’s Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) definition of GM as “the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels. . . . The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality” (UN Women, n.d.). This definition reinforces that gender equality is the goal and that GM describes the strategic actions designed to get there (UN Women, n.d.). The premise is that if GM is implemented effectively, it facilitates gender equality by exposing gender as a socially constructed process that is enhanced by restrictive policies that reduce and constrain women. Therefore, in theory, GM will make policies more effective by both revealing underlying gendered assumptions, processes, and outcomes and building in more gender-sensitive practices and norms (Shortall, 2015).

Arguably, that GM should retain its relevance in the context of new global threats and the need to assess policies and practices that have been developed and are developing in response to the impact of climate change on individuals and communities would appear obvious. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC; UN, 1992) defines climate change as “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods” (p. 7).

Like their feminist counterparts who lobbied for GM at the 1995 Beijing conference, feminist activists in a number of bodies, including the Women’s Environment Development Organisation and GenderCC, are actively lobbying for gender equality in the context of climate change and are fostering a Women’s Global Call for Climate Justice. Recognition of gender has made slow progress in global forums, including the annual Committee of the Parties meeting of countries that have endorsed the UNFCCC, and in global actions. For example, only 27% of heads of delegations to the 2018 meeting were women (UN, 2019). While GM of climate policies and practices may appear obvious, it appears that significant constraints linger.

This article assesses the development of GM and its application within governments and organizations in the context of climate change. This exploration reveals that despite the experiences of women impacted by climate change and despite intense lobbying from transnational gender-focused organizations, policies fall short of gender goals. The article examines the significant constraints within organizations that reduce the effectiveness of GM in addressing its ultimate goal of gender equality in the context of climate change. Yet a commitment to mainstreaming of climate change responses is critical if we are to foster gender equalities within climate change policies and actions (MacGregor, 2009). Otherwise we are in danger of reproducing policies, practices, and resource distribution that endorse and strengthen inequitable gender power relations, subordinate women, and undermine the opportunity presented by climate change for effective gender equality measures.

The article first examines the gender implications inherent in climate change disasters. Second, it outlines the historical development of GM and the factors and resistant practices that have reduced its potential. Finally, it assesses the significance of GM to addressing gender in the context of climate change and notes the need to address factors that are constraining the potential of GM. Despite the uneven implementation of GM to date and its corruption by liberal feminists and others who have “gone to bed with capitalism” (Prugl, 2017, p. 31), the radical potential of GM offers a way to address gender inequalities in the context of major climate-related disasters. Without adequate planning and ongoing critical attention by activists and others, policies developed in haste will not necessarily consider the disproportionate impacts of climate-induced disasters on women and girls, nor will they challenge the underlying structural inequalities that foster their vulnerability.

Why Is Gender a Factor in Climate Change Disasters?

Climate changes have been observed for over a century but only became newsworthy in the 1990s (Revkin, 2018). Globally, climate change–induced disasters are occurring more frequently and with greater intensity and are causing widespread food and water insecurity, negative health and welfare issues, higher mortality rates, and increased malnourishment (Australian Academy of Science, 2015; Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], 2007; McMichael, 2003). These events have also led to widespread social movements of people within and across national borders escaping resource depletion (Nampinga, 2008).

Climate change results in both catastrophic and incremental disasters, including droughts, heatwaves, sea-level rise, floods, mudslides, and fires. These disasters may be catastrophic or incremental, intersect with and create food and water insecurity, and affect poverty, health, income, education, livelihoods, and employment, thereby placing significant stress on families. In areas where climate disasters have occurred, the destabilization of populations and the erosion of livelihoods often leads to outmigrations of family members seeking work and income elsewhere, which further fractures families. Nonetheless, in addressing climate challenges, it is important to note that they are not occurring in isolation. They intersect with other factors that have gendered consequences, including population increases that place increased stress on resources, a rise in fundamentalism and far right doctrines, political and economic uncertainty, population movements, increasing wealth inequalities within and between nations, and a global pandemic that is adding to uncertainty across the world.

As climate change and resultant climate-induced disasters moved across the globe, it became evident in the early 21st century that these events were causing widespread social upheaval (FAO, 2007). It was also evident that these impacts were gendered and that there were unequal outcomes for different people experiencing the same event. Of particular note were the gendered outcomes of disasters and the increased vulnerability of women and girls (Dankelman, 2010; Enarson, 2009, 2012; Terry, 2009). This vulnerability springs not from innate characteristics but from deeply entrenched and normalized social practices and structural inequalities mediated by intersectional factors such as age, marital status, level of poverty, race, ethnicity, occupation, religion, location, and immigration status (Djoudi et al., 2016).

Regardless of the geographical location, the type of climate change–induced event, whether it is catastrophic or incremental, whether affecting rural or urban areas, and regardless of the scale of the disaster, researchers have noted that women and girls suffer disproportionately. The work of researchers such as Dankelman (2010), Neumayer and Pluemper (2007), Lane and McNaught (2009), Terry (2009), and Enarson (2009, 2012), and others is critical to this awakening awareness of gender inequalities. They have noted that women’s vulnerability in disasters is exacerbated when they lose control of their land, water, and food sources; are not privy to updated information; are not included in decision making; or experience increased violence. They are further compromised when employment and education services break down, when they experience increasing exposure to unsafe conditions, and when they have a reduced capacity for local organizing.

Globally women are more likely to live in poverty, experience malnourishment (Alston & Akhter, 2016), and suffer ill effects on their health. Further, their lack of ownership of land and resources increases their vulnerability, which can be exacerbated when land grabbing occurs following disasters resulting in women losing their legal rights (see, e.g., Bell, 2011, who described land grabbing following the 2004 tsunami and the World Bank’s intervention to protect women’s land rights). Because of a failure to include women in decision making, critical outcomes of climate disasters can include a failure to ensure equitable resource distribution and a potential loss of women’s local knowledge, which can improve restoration efforts and environmental outcomes.

Women are much more likely to die in catastrophic climate events (Neumayer & Pluemper, 2007), more susceptible to malnourishment and poverty when food and water security are threatened (Alam & Rahman, 2014; FAO, 2007; Lambrou & Piana, 2006; World Health Organization, 2005), and more likely to experience violence during and after a disaster; and for some women this may be their first experience of violence (Parkinson & Zara, 2011). Research in Australia and in the Pacific and South Asia regions indicates that women’s experience of violence escalates after disasters (Alston, 2015; Parkinson, 2011; Parkinson & Zara, 2011; Whittenbury, 2011); their access to resources is reduced; and their involvement in decision making and consultations may be minimal.

Social constraints experienced by women can have significant negative effects: They may not receive early warnings, may be afraid to leave their homes to go to shelters because they do not have a male escort or permission from their husbands, may be aware that shelters are unsafe for women, and may suspect there will be no privacy or access to women’s toilets. Women often are not consulted or included in information dissemination and their ongoing care work for relatives may prevent them from leaving. Their home-based enterprises may not be considered in post-disaster resourcing. These factors can result in increased morbidity and mortality for women and girls. In addition, young girls may be vulnerable to forced child marriages and to trafficking or lose their access to education (Alston, 2015; Alston et al., 2014).

While these barriers are a significant focus of gender scholars, we must guard against casting women in the Global South as universally vulnerable (Arora-Jonsson, 2011). Thus gender-sensitive strategies are critical to climate change disaster planning, preparation, and recovery, as well as analysis of what Arora-Jonsson (2011) terms the axes of power that limit women’s involvement in critical decision making about climate actions and attention to the structural issues that shape gender inequalities.

While there is recognition that many women are particularly vulnerable (Arora-Jonsson, 2011) because of a lack of attention to structural gender inequalities, it is becoming more evident that the focus within climate change policies and actions appears to be on scientific and technical solutions that are backed by neoliberal economic development policies. At the same time attention to women-focused policy is leading to an expectation of an increasing “feminisation of responsibility and obligation” for climate responses (Bradshaw, 2015, p. 554; Chant & Sweetman, 2012). Thus, many policies are premised on the unacknowledged understanding that women will continue their responsibility for the tasks that shape social reproduction at the same time as they are expected to take on economic challenges without the benefit of structural inequalities being addressed. Thus, there is limited reflection on the inequitable gender and power relations that shape lives and livelihoods and no attention to women’s increasing experiences of violence in the context of climate challenges. Thus GM of policies and practices developed in response to climate change must be undertaken in order to address how these challenges.

History of Gender Mainstreaming

GM emerged from the early 1970s debates concerning women and their absence from targeted development planning. The term women in development (WID) came out of concerns voiced by feminist activists about the lack of women-focused development planning and lack of attention to women’s issues. Miller and Rasarvi (1995) noted that WID was coined by a network of female development professionals who argued that development funding was not reaching women and, in fact, was eroding women’s rights and status. WID largely proceeded along liberal feminist ideals, which supported investment in women that would lead to economic benefits. Women’s prior exclusion from development investments and actions was seen to be a result of their invisibility in the economic sphere and their limited access to resources (Bradshaw, 2015). The solution was to “add women and stir” (Bradshaw, 2015, p. 557), a practice that did little to address the very real constraints and structural disadvantages experienced by women. Addressing the impact of climate change is in danger of following a similar trajectory; governments tend to involve women in actions and strategies as an afterthought instead of focusing on inequitable structural arrangements.

Historically, and following frustration from feminist activists, the development field shifted from WID to gender and development (GAD). This removed the focus on women being the problem to an analysis of unequal power relations. The move to GAD was an acknowledgment that gender is socially constructed and that gender inequalities lie at the heart of women’s inequality. Arguably the conceptual development of GM was historically grounded in the development sphere, where women’s frustration with the lack of gender equality in every aspect of their lives and work is evident. Regardless of country, location, ethnicity, education, occupation, family structure, or level of poverty, women experience inequality in relation to experiences of violence, levels of income, leadership roles, land and other resource ownership and access, and division of labor. The shared frustration felt and expressed by women across the world was galvanized during the officially named, and UN-sanctioned, International Women’s Year in 1975 and the consequent women’s actions, including the Decade of Women and the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference.

It was at the Beijing conference that GM emerged as a critical conceptual basis for addressing gender inequalities. Governments were urged not only to continue to establish national machineries to address women’s status but to locate them in strategic areas with senior staff in charge. Further, activists argued that these instrumentalities should be responsible for mainstreaming gender across whole departments and instrumentalities—thereby moving the “women’s problem” to the mainstream and making it a problem for all areas of policy and practice to address. The Beijing conference was a watershed moment that alerted governments to move beyond their complacency and do more than address the “women problem” through poorly funded women’s units. The conference and subsequent UN commitments raised awareness to the fact that gender inequality requires government and institutional responses across all areas of policy and practice to expose gendered economic, social, cultural, and political biases against women. The parallels with lobbying for gender justice in climate change policies and practices is evident.

Implementing GM

In the time since the 1995 Beijing conference, how successful has the implementation of GM been and has it adequately addressed the gender inequities resulting from climate change? First, it is important to remember that GM was born out of the frustrations of women about the lack of gender equality and the compelling actions of feminist activists. Second, the concept was then translated at the national level and implemented within government departments and other institutions by employees who may have had little insight into gender equality issues and in fact may have been resistant to change. As a result, the implementation of GM across the world has been haphazard, messy, and often deliberately obstructed. While UN member countries were obligated through their support of UN recommendations to implement GM actions, their efforts have not necessarily been coordinated, thorough, or even appropriate (see for example Payne, 2011). For example, some countries took the opportunity offered by GM to disband or downsize their women’s units and various other mandated apparatuses without any attempt to replace them or to implement regular and thorough gender assessments and budgets as required by GM principles (Alston, 2014).

Caglar (2013) suggested that these outcomes were as much about institutional and political resistance as they were about a lack of conceptual clarity. Thus, even countries with a poor record on gender equality paid lip service to GM, implementing it within an unchallenged cultural context and leading to the corruption or downplaying of the concept. The Council of Europe noted in 1998 that GM had become an “empty signifier” that was dependent on cultural context, little understood, and easily corroded (Council of Europe, 2020). Lombardo and Meier (2006) referred to it as “an open signifier that can be filled with both feminist and non-feminist meanings” (p. 161). In the context of climate change, Bradshaw et al. (2020) noted that “gender” is losing its original feminist intent, becoming reductive and nonpolitical. Chant and Sweetman (2012) also noted that the GM of climate change resulted in a reversion to the a WID framework focused on investment in women for economic reasons rather than to challenge structural gender inequalities. If we are to mainstream gender within climate change responses, what is required is its reframing as a meaningful signifier at the same time as attention is given to the vulnerable points within organizations where resistance meets obligation. This section explores the way attention to women has taken shape amid the challenges and constraints inherent in the implementation of GM.

Three Stages of Implementation of Gender Equality Measures

At the time of the UN endorsement of GM, Walby (1997) noted that there were three stages in the process of adopting gender goals in a policy environment. These are relevant in the climate space as institutions address the need for gender awareness in climate policies and practices. The first stage, and the one where many organizations get stuck, is to introduce equal treatment through sex discrimination legislation and policies. Thus, if we are introducing the mainstreaming of gender within climate policy responses, merely noting GM as a policy driver does little to change or address the experiences of women. While this stage is necessary, it does not lead to equal outcomes and does not acknowledge significant challenges facing women, such as experiences of violence, lack of access to resources, health implications, and malnourishment of children to name a few. A policy of equal treatment places the burden on women to fit into organizational cultures that are overwhelmingly male and have historically developed policies and practices without attention to women’s perspectives.

Walby noted that a second stage includes positive actions to support women, such as women’s units. This tends to enable the corralling of gender equality in these small units that exist within institutions that may themselves be profoundly gendered. As a consequence, the work of these units can easily be marginalized and their agendas trivialized, and the best advocates might hope for, without strong departmental support, is incremental change and minimal support funding for women. These women’s units tend to operate as a voice of resistance in organizations where they are often ignored and trivialized (Alston, 2006). Many organizations have compartmentalized gender actions relating to climate change to discrete units or activities. For example, while a gender assessment may be required on research projects funded to build greater resilience to climate change, this may only involve a poorly funded gender assessment undertaken to satisfy funding guidelines.

Walby’s third stage is the actual implementation of GM as it is intended to operate. This approach shifts the focus away from women and their perceived failings to the organization itself. Done properly, it assesses the objectives of the department or organization: its priorities, strategies, processes, and structures. The goal is to bring about changes in the culture of the organization and to make meaningful improvements in achieving gender equality. Thus, organizations are no longer enabled to try to change women to fit the system. Rather, they are tasked with changing the system to incorporate women (Crompton & Le Feuvre, 2000; Rees, 2001).

Walby’s analysis, and the commentary that supports it, is useful in highlighting the types of responses that countries and organizations have adopted in their implementation of the concept and their gender responses to climate change. It illustrates that the tension between gender equality and the mainstream means that mainstreaming remains a contested process where power will not be easily given up and where gender equality may be both misunderstood and resisted. Drawing on Walby’s (2005) analysis, the next section outlines factors that further constrain the implementation of GM in general and in relation to climate change policies and actions.

Adopting Gender Mainstream Rhetoric

Walby (2005) noted several factors that create tension, including cultural and bureaucratic resistances, within organizations adopting GM:


How to address the tensions between gender equality and the mainstream.


Whether the vision of GM is sameness, difference, or transformation.


Whether the vision can be distinguished from the strategy to get there.


The relationship between GM and other complex inequalities.


The relationship between expertise and democracy.


The implications of the transnational nature of the development of GM.

Gender Equality and the Mainstream

GM is designed to change gender inequalities by working within government systems and institutions to ensure that women and men have equal opportunities and outcomes, and that policies and practices are not grounded in particular gendered views. However, the adoption of GM of climate change policies and practices can be both a strength and a weakness, often leading to the original feminist intent being lost as the organizational mainstream resists the intent of GM (Prugl, 2010; Squires & Wickham-Jones, 2002). Scala and Paterson (2017) noted that there would always be issues when GM is being implemented in organizations that are themselves highly gendered. Organizations addressing climate change are often science-based institutions seeking technological solutions, and their personnel may see gender as irrelevant to their work. Further, organizational personnel may not understand the shift from women to gender and may view gender issues as women’s business. Their traditional focus on technological and economic efficiency rather than human rights can lead to a reluctance to change the way things are done, and they may not see GM as relevant to their departments. As Kenny (2014, p. 679) noted, there is a need to “nail the bias” of these institutions and to understand both the formal architecture of the organization and its informal rules.

Mackay et al. (2010) supported this notion, arguing that a gendered analysis of organizations can expose norms, rules, and practices that result in politically loaded outcomes. Inequalities within departments and beyond are viewed as the natural order of things. This is challenged even further when the knowledge base of climate change is overwhelmingly dominated by science and technological solutions at the expense of social evaluations.

Lack of Clarity of Vision

The second implementation issue is that there is often a lack of clarity around the vision of GM. The rapid adoption of GM means that the goals of GM may be interpreted differently in diverse contexts and there may be ambiguity surrounding the concepts of gender equality and GM (Scala & Paterson, 2017). This lack of clarity stems from confusion as to whether the goal is to achieve “sameness” (i.e., women and men being treated in the same way), or to treat women differently, or to transform gender relations, with the latter being the original intent; Walby, 2005). Calgar (2013) suggested that the problems of translation are not only about institutional resistance but also about clarity. This has led various organizations to adopt and interpret GM in particular ways to suit their purposes. For example, the World Bank largely interprets GM as being about development; while the European Union (EU) tends to adopt a neoliberal market philosophy and to value women as caregivers. As Shortall (2015) suggested, this is also evident in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which focuses on the symptoms of gender inequalities rather than the causes and hence loses the transformative capacity of GM. If we are to attend to GM in the climate space, Bradshaw (2015) noted that a transformative approach demands the transformation not only of women’s lives but also of the organizations that “make the policies that affect their lives” (p. 564).

Can the Vision of GM be Distinguished from the Strategy to Get There?

There is often limited understanding among policy makers and organizations tasked with addressing the impacts of climate change as to what the problem to be solved might actually be. This is particularly evident when they are working within a society that is deeply gendered and accepting of the status quo. If GM is undertaken through organizations that accept gender inequality and violence against women as culturally appropriate, then the transformational possibility is lost (Cavanagh, 2017). For example, a study of the implementation of GM of climate policies undertaken in Zambia by Dlamini and Samboko (2017) revealed that Zambia had supported the UN’s call for GM and that mainstreaming was supported in theory in Zambian departments. Nonetheless the overarching patriarchal society dominated and corrupted any attempts to achieve gender equality and displayed a studied ignorance of the goals of GM. This led to a lack of monitoring and evaluation of policy implementation and a failure to understand the vision of GM. Dlamini and Samboko (2017) noted that gender inequalities were viewed as normal because decision makers and policy makers did not fully support the notion of gender equality. This study alerts us to the significant potential for a theoretical acceptance of GM but pervasive gender blindness in its implementation. In the area of climate change this could lead to organizations adopting GM as an overarching policy driver at the same time as climate change policies fail to fully embrace gender equality in various cultural contexts, which will inevitably lead to unequal outcomes for women in the context of climate challenges.

Exacerbating this gender blindness is that policies enacted within departments may not only fail to address gender equality but also be deeply gendering. That is, policies themselves can shape gender inequality because of their framing and application in impacted communities. For example, they may support the reestablishment of male-dominated industries and fail to support the reestablishment of female enterprises. As Cavanagh (2017) noted, the state can and does construct gender inequalities through its policies, and personnel often cannot “see,” and indeed will normalize, gender differences. Organizational staff may not see gender issues within their own departments, and they may also struggle to see gender inequalities in the wider society as anything other than normal.

GM and Other Complex Inequalities

In the context of climate change, GM can become reductive and one-dimensional, with limited attention to the complex interplay of intersectional factors that enhance or reduce vulnerability in climate-affected communities. Implementation of GM must be pliable enough to resist a unidimensional focus on an ill-defined concept of gender. Organizations administering climate policies and addressing climate-related disaster impacts may see only the economic, physical, and health consequences and not the increase in violence experienced by women or the increased burden of largely invisible work related to caring for the sick, collecting water and fuel, and supporting families. Consequent policies and resource distribution may then be more focused on ensuring efficiencies than in addressing existing gendered power relations (Bradshaw, 2015).

The Implications of the Transnational Nature of the Development of GM

If we are to understand the significance of GM as a conceptual milestone, it is important to note that the push for gender equality came from “transnational networks of ‘nonstate actors’” (True & Mintrom, 2001, p. 27)—international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), women’s organizations, and UN instrumentalities that operate from a variety of feminist positions. In the early 21st century, similar UN and women’s organizations have urged nations to adhere to gender-sensitive policies and practices. While women’s rights are at the heart of these actions to address gender inequality, it is also important to note that economic development and the advancement of nations remain dominant and constraining factors in shaping world politics and gender justice.

While countries across the world have variously supported, or indeed discouraged, the idea of GM, what has become more transparent with the introduction and international support for the concept are the ways in which the policy environment has supported and in fact condoned gender inequalities. Indeed, 25 years after the Beijing conference, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted that progress toward gender equality had been slow, uneven, and based on “centuries of discrimination, deep-rooted patriarchy and misogyny” (Lederer, 2020, p. 1) and that gender inequality revolves around power and a lack of representation of women in critical forums.

If we are to address women’s vulnerability and the critical significance of gendered structural disadvantages in the context of climate change, a focus on gender inequality and on uneven gendered power relations that limit women’s choices and their control over resources is critical. Mainstreaming provides a significant and endorsed pathway to addressing gender inequalities exposed by climate change. However the historical legacy of mainstreaming to date does not inspire confidence in the institutional processes necessary to shape equitable responses.

Reluctance of Key Players to Commit to Gender Equality

While the language of GM is accepted within organizations, gender equality remains. In research conducted in Lao PDR (Whittenbury & Alston, 2015, p. 14), INGOs noted that GM was critical for their work in isolated areas. However, others noted that a more nuanced understanding was necessary because some organizations, including government departments, were receiving “gender money” but delivering little in terms of women’s empowerment. If a commitment to gender equality and the empowerment of women is not forthcoming from organizational leaders, then this lack of enthusiasm or understanding of the purpose of GM is mirrored within the organizations. Those at middle management levels tasked with addressing and implementing GM will treat the process as a formulaic technocratic procedure that amounts to little more than filling out forms and ticking boxes. Early 21st-century research suggests that in departments where GM is not championed, organizational resistance can be strong (Lombardo & Mergaert, 2019; Scala & Paterson, 2017; Shortall, 2015). Mackay et al. (2010) noted that the application of GM must also address the gendered norms, rules, and practices within an organization—the “rules off the game” (Krook & Mackay, 2011, p. 1) and the political outcomes these have for policies and practices.

The 21st Century: GM and Climate Change

If we are to effect greater gender equality in the climate change space, there is no doubt that the foundational feminist ideal of GM has the capacity to facilitate changes in gender inequalities if it is adopted effectively. GM can advance women’s basic human rights, their access to resources, and attention to work–life balance (Lomazzi & Crespi, 2019). Nonetheless, organizational acceptance of GM has not necessarily led to action to address cultural change. Rather, there appears to be an acceptance of the process in theory and a resistance to making any changes to achieve transformative change. Indeed, Cavanagh (2017) suggested that there can be general acceptance of gender equality that coincides with outright hostility to feminism.

In addition, gender inequality is often still viewed as a women’s problem—a problem that can be resolved by helping women to fit in rather than addressing systemic problems or understanding the broader context of gender inequalities between women and men. The idea that the concept could be transformative is widely resisted. Consequently, in many organizations the implementation of GM has devolved into a technocratic exercise where forms are assiduously filled out, gender statistics are collected, boxes are ticked, and the required paperwork completed with little thought to the underlying intent (Caglar, 2013; Cavanagh, 2017; Shortall, 2015). What is lost is any attempt to retool the policies that run through departments to ensure they address inbuilt gender inequalities. As Shortall (2015) noted in her comments on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), while there is much busyness surrounding departmental mainstreaming, “little thought has been given to the practical difficulties of actually gender mainstreaming a policy such as CAP” (p. 717).

Applying GM to Climate Change Policies and Practices

In 2007 at the Climate Change conference in Bali, the rallying cry from women’s activists participating in the proceedings was that there should be “No Climate Justice without Gender Justice.” This cry continues to hold true regardless of other threats. If climate change is to be addressed in the global environment, gender justice and a commitment to gender equality must form part of climate change planning. However, the application of GM to climate change actions and policies will require INGOs, governments, and community organizations to maintain a strong commitment to both the original radical feminist intent and transformative potential and understand the intersectional factors that shape women’s experiences. Prugl (2017) noted that the intent has been co-opted by neoliberalism (neoliberalism with a feminist face) with the intent of focusing efforts on economic development. Adopting the mantra of GM without a commitment to gender equality undermines its strategic intent. Lomazzi and Crespi (2019) noted that “Mainstreaming can create changes in organizations and establish environments that are conducive to promotion of gender equality. But it requires changes in attitudes and relationships, institutions and legal frameworks, economic institutions and political decision-making structures” (pp. 4–5).

Have we reverted to the smart economics directly related to WID? Are we forgetting the feminist goal of addressing the structural impediments experienced by women? Are we recreating the international environment where women are viewed as saviors: racing to the rescue and prepared to continue their unsung reproductive work while shouldering the economic expectations of national and international bodies without concomitant attention to their experiences of violence or the hardships that might result from a degraded environment? Is the goal of institutional actions “gender equality, and women’s empowerment or the facilitation of development ‘on the cheap’”? (Chant & Sweetman, 2012, p. 521). The goal of GM in the context of climate change should be to ensure women’s human rights are protected and enhanced. Without this, we are endlessly repeating the cycle of economic efficiency at the expense of women’s rights, safety, and empowerment.

To address this will require a vision at the national level that incorporates gender equality and the empowerment of women; a clear articulation of that vision and of the GM processes adopted to achieve it; a clarity of the purpose of GM within national government, organizational, and community structures; and attention to organizational practices. It will require the positioning of a gender unit at the top of departments, with gender focal points across departments including any high-level management committees. The high-level gender unit should be tasked with training delivery and capacity building, policy and program advice, dissemination of information, and data collection and analysis. Departments tasked with attending to climate change challenges must address the following: clarity of language and purpose, clear goals and transparent links between the two, advocacy, and constant analysis of issues from a gender perspective; gender-sensitive plans and recognition of women as clients of the organization; gender experts working on climate change responses at the apex of climate change response units and government departments tasked with addressing gender equality measures within the organization and in the field; data that is nuanced by an evaluation of intersectional factors and constantly monitored and evaluated with clear goals both within departments and across the policies and practices relating to climate change; GM built into disaster planning, response strategies, plans of action, and local level implementation; and departments that recognize the rights of women to access services and to be supported and consulted.

Facilitating GM at Organizational Levels

In the field, gender sensitivity must be a critical part of climate change responses. But as Oxfam’s Nalini Kasynathan reminds us, “understanding and respecting gender theoretically is not adequate—you have to feel it, you have to act it and you have to model it” (Oxfam, 2021). Oxfam, like a number of INGOs, continues to work with and for women—addressing violence, encouraging women to run for public office, supporting women’s enterprises, and providing resources in emergency situations. However, Rasavi (2009) made the critical point that even INGOs committed to GM are subject to gendered organizational structures and they must be clear-eyed in keeping their own house in order. Rasavi also emphasized the importance of connections to women’s organizations and activists outside INGOs who can put pressure on agencies and present a localized feminist agenda. These insider-outsider connections are critical to fulfilling organizations’ commitment to GM.

For GM to be successful there must be strong support from the very top of an organization and constant vigilance maintained around processes. Leaders must be aware of and understand the vision of GM and work with gender experts and focal points to ensure it is successfully adopted throughout the organization. Gender experts should be located on central leadership teams and gender reports should be a regular agenda item at leadership team meetings. Compulsory GM training should form part of the business of the organization and staff performance judged accordingly. When first responders are sent to climate-related disaster sites, gender experts should be included to ensure that the needs of women and girls ae met and their safety addressed. Once in a site, a gender unit should be established and women’s services including violence services must be included in this service provision. Above all, policy makers, national governments, first responders, and organizations engaged on the ground must acknowledge that women’s rights are human rights.

Beveridge et al. (2000), Squires and Wickham-Jones (2002), and Alston (2014) have noted that the factors that determine the effectiveness of mainstreaming initiatives are:

the participation of women in policy making;

consultations with women;

internal and external partnerships;

support for women’s movements to ensure that gender equality is constantly revisited and reevaluated and that new circumstances and gendered outcomes are addressed;

the production of gender-sensitive information;

advocacy events to keep gender on the agenda;

strategies to implement mainstreaming;

regular reporting;

gender champions within and beyond the organization;

gender-balanced staffing within the organization;

the provision of adequate resources including budgets, staff, information, and resources to implement policy commitments;

the integration of the mainstreaming unit into the policy-making process; and

the extent to which the policy unit is ideologically aligned with government/organizational values.


This article has focused on GM in the context of climate change and argues that declining gender equality in this space is hampered by both a lack of understanding of the structural impediments to gender equality and effective implementation of GM. The idea for GM was introduced in the late 20th century by feminist activists who were tired of the disregard for women and the gender inequalities that framed their lives. Support from the UN ensured that GM was widely adopted across member countries. The rapid dissemination of GM did not necessarily lead to the transformation of gender power relations or dedicated attention to gender equality. This article has outlined the factors that impeded the adoption of GM, noting particularly the lack of understanding of the goals of GM and the lack of dedicated attention to achieving change.

Why then would there be an argument to adopt GM in the context of the global challenges posed by climate change? The answer lies in the continued support for GM among feminists and women’s groups and their commitment to its transformative potential. To abandon GM leaves few constructive options for addressing the huge inequalities still experienced by women. GM has the potential to contend with the significant gendered personal and structural issues faced by women and girls in the context of climate change.

The need to address the gendered consequences of climate change, and indeed the previously sanctioned norms and practices that marginalized women and girls and eroded their human rights, is evident. However, climate adaptation and mitigation processes are often focused on rebuilding and enhancing community structures as they have always been before, during, and after climate disasters. This focus on restoring and maintaining communities reduces attention to the possibility of reimagining and reshaping communities and their norms and practices to address and enhance gender equality. Yet the introduction of GM frameworks to climate disaster responses can ensure that women and girls are not only protected but that they are consulted, that they receive equitable resources, and that they have options that are not life threatening. This is where the critical importance of GM in the context of organizational structures tasked with addressing the planning, support, and restoration of communities is so critical. If GM is fostered and supported within organizations, then the factors that shape gender equality within communities can be addressed. Planning and post-disaster restoration can become more than building communities back to what they were and uncritically accepting overt gender inequalities. It can be transformational if organizations are conscious of gender inequalities and challenge these through their policies and practices, regardless of what is viewed as culturally appropriate. GM has the potential to change lives in the context of climate change. We should accept its transformational potential and get on with it.

Further Reading

  • Alston, M. (2015). Gender and climate change in Bangladesh. Routledge.
  • Enarson, E. (2012). Women confronting natural disaster: From vulnerability to resilience. Lynne Reiner.
  • True, J., & Mintrom, M. (2001). Transnational networks and policy diffusion: The case of gender mainstreaming. International Studies Quarterly, 45, 27–57.
  • Walby, S. (2005). Gender mainstreaming: Productive tensions in theory and practice. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society, 12(3), 321–343.
  • Women’s Environment Development Policy. (2021). Gender-responsive climate policy.


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  • Alston, M. (2006). Gender mainstreaming in practice: A view from rural Australia. National Womens’ Studies Association Journal, 18(2), 123–147.
  • Alston, M. (2014). Gender mainstreaming and climate change. Women’s Studies International Forum, 47(Part B), 287–294.
  • Alston, M. (2015). Women and climate change in Bangladesh. Routledge.
  • Alston, M., & Akhter, B. (2016). Gender and food security in Bangladesh: The impact of climate change. Gender, Place and Culture, 23(10), 1450–1464.
  • Alston, M., Whittenbury, K., Haynes, A., & Godden, N. (2014). Are climate challenges reinforcing child and forced marriage and dowry as adaptation strategies in the context of Bangladesh? Women’s Studies International Forum, 47, 137–144.
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